Jerusalem's Time Tunnels

Horizontal excavations throughout the Old City of Jerusalem and Silwan are producing important archaeological discoveries, but opponents charge that they are undermining Palestinian foundations, in more ways than one

Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
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Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

Under the streets of the Old City of Jerusalem and the neighboring village of Silwan is a parallel universe. It is cool year round, and lacks the din of vehicular traffic and merchants. In lower Jerusalem, you cannot hear stones being thrown or smell the tear gas from the Friday clashes between Silwan youths and the police.

On the final day of the Great Revolt against the Romans, in 70 C.E., as the Temple was going up in flames, the last of the Jewish rebels escaped into the city's underground sewer system in a desperate attempt to flee the Roman legionnaires. "Those in the sewers were ferreted out, the ground was torn up, and all who were trapped were killed," reported contemporary historian Flavius Josephus.

Zedekiah's Cave, which extends under much of the Muslim Quarter.Credit: Daniel Bar-On

The most significant sewage tunnel, which ran underneath Jerusalem's main street, has been excavated by the Antiquities Authority and the nonprofit Elad Foundation. This main street led from the Siloam Pool - the city's main water source - to the Temple Mount and the Temple. Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims marched up this road three times a year. Jerusalem's main thoroughfare during the Second Temple period is today directly under the main road of Silwan, known in Arabic as Wadi Hilweh Street.

The Siloam Pool, at the bottom of Silwan, is a small remnant of the major waterworks that sustained ancient Jerusalem. Near the edge of the pool is an opening into the hillside, leading to a long, magnificently carved tunnel. Welcome to the Herodian period.

After a few dozen meters, the tunnel suddenly drops from street level into the sewer below, which Josephus described. Once work is complete, visitors touring the City of David tunnels will be able to descend beneath the Old City walls and emerge from the ground at the Davidson Center, the archaeological park between just within the Dung Gate, to the immediate southwest of the Temple Mount. In the future, visitors may even be able to enter the Western Wall tunnels and continue all the way to the Via Dolorosa, in the heart of the Muslim Quarter. From there, it is a quick walk to the immense Zedekiah's Cave under the Muslim Quarter buildings. All told, this means that visitors could potentially spend hours on end exploring subterranean Jerusalem from end to end of the ancient city (though not including the Temple Mount), barely seeing the light of day.

The excavation of the extensive network of caves and tunnels below the Western Wall, Silwan and the Muslim Quarter is now nearing completion. The intensive activity has been under way for decades, generally without collaboration between the various agencies involved. Yet despite the lack of a unified policy, critics of the tunnels charge that the excavations have changed the geography and geopolitics of Jerusalem's Holy Basin. The tunnels have created a new Jerusalem, one illuminated by fluorescent bulbs - a Jewish-Israeli expanse devoid of Palestinians and conflicts. Whatever the case may be, it seems that from this point on, anyone who wants to talk about dividing Jerusalem will need two maps, one for above the surface and another for the subterranean.

The Western Wall link

The excavation enterprise includes five different projects: the well-known and heavily trafficked Western Wall tunnels, which lead northward from the Western Wall plaza along the length of the wall obscured by the Muslim Quarter buildings; the City of David national park; the tunnel along the Herodian-era road, which connects the City of David to the Old City; a tunnel from the Muslim Quarter eastward toward the Western Wall; and Zedekiah's Cave, a gigantic quarry excavated over several thousand years, that extends under much of the Muslim Quarter. The partners in this immense excavation enterprise are the Western Wall Heritage Foundation (a nonprofit association that administers the Western Wall plaza and is controlled by the Prime Minister's Office ), the Antiquities Authority, the East Jerusalem Development Corporation (another government agency ), and the right-wing, nonprofit associations Elad and Ateret Cohanim.

Some of the tunnels were excavated for religious and tourism objectives: Work on the Western Wall tunnels, for example, took place over the past 40 years at the initiative of current and former Western Wall rabbis and the Religious Services Ministry. However, most of the subterranean enterprise is archaeological. The excavations have yielded significant findings and insights, and even critics admit there is much of interest in at least some of the tunnels.

There is also an important financial aspect. The two main tunnel networks - the City of David and the Western Wall tunnels - are among Jerusalem's premier tourist attractions, drawing hundreds of thousands of visitors annually. An underground link between the Western Wall and the City of David would undoubtedly boost the importance of the latter, which the Elad Foundation controls. All it would take is a fraction of the millions who visit the Western Wall every year to descend into such a channel.

The project's critics, mainly members of left-wing groups and independent archaeologists, view the excavations as a right-wing tool. The left argues that the tunnels are physically undermining Palestinian homes in Silwan and the Old City, while politically reinforcing Jewish settlement in the Muslim Quarter and Silwan. Others are concerned that the tunnels could be used by extremists to attack the Muslim shrines on the Temple Mount.

"The settlement enterprise in Jerusalem takes place on three dimensions," says Meretz city council member Meir Margalit. "The ground, the rooftops and the underground. The tunnels are yet another way of gaining control over East Jerusalem. I have no problem with excavating per se; I myself am an archaeology buff, and I always get a thrill from these tunnels. The problem is the excavators' messianic political agenda. A provocation beneath the mosques could end the peace process for generations."

Nevertheless, despite the occasional complaints by officials from the Waqf (the Muslim trust that administers the Temple Mount ) and the Islamic Movement in Israel, none of the tunnels actually go under the Temple Mount or threaten its structures, and there are no plans to excavate underneath it. In most places, the huge stones of the Western Wall actually block the excavators' access to Temple Mount.

Lost temple treasures

The most important tunnel excavator in the city's history was the noted British archaeologist Charles Warren. In the 1860s, tunneling was partly necessitated by the need to conceal from the Ottoman authorities some of the work adjacent to - or beneath - the Temple Mount. At the same time, the tunneling was also motivated by a mystical romantic hunt for the treasures of the ancient Israelites' Temple.

The tunneling halted during the British Mandate and Jordanian rule, and was renewed following the Six-Day War. Then, as well, it was the pursuit of Temple treasures that underlay the excavations. The most significant figure in this pursuit was then-Western Wall Rabbi Yehuda Meir Getz. Getz, who had a spiritual, mystical approach to life in general and to the Temple Mount in particular, believed he could find the greatest treasure of them all - the Ark of the Covenant.

Journalist Nadav Shragai, who investigated the tunnels for his 1995 Hebrew-language book "The Temple Mount Conflict," explains that, according to Maimonides, when King Solomon was building the First Temple he knew it would eventually be destroyed, so he "built a structure in which to hide the Ark, down below in deep and twisting concealed places." Getz believed the Ark of the Covenant, which had not been seen since Solomon's days, was still hidden beneath the Temple Mount. The Ark, Getz believed, would hasten the redemption. Except that his excavations nearly led to bloodshed.

Getz spearheaded the excavation of the Western Wall tunnels, which were meant to expose the western wall of the Temple Mount in its entirety. The tunnels stretch northward from the Western Wall plaza deep into the Muslim Quarter. One visual highlight of the tunnel tour is a colossal carved stone weighing hundreds of tons. Given the limits of Second Temple-era engineering capabilities, it is still unclear how the stone got there. The tunnels also afford visitors the opportunity to pray at the closest point to the Temple's Holy of Holies.

But Getz wanted much more. In 1981, his excavators broke eastward onto the Temple Mount, into an ancient tunnel first excavated by Warren. Getz was looking for signs of the Ark. His excavation was conducted under a heavy cloak of secrecy, with knowledge of it kept even from Prime Minister Menachem Begin.

When Waqf officials discovered the tunnel, a massive altercation broke out between the excavators and Palestinian youths who entered the tunnel from the Temple Mount side. In the wake of the riot, then-Minister of Religious Affairs Yosef Burg, ordered the opening sealed.

In his book, Shragai quotes from the diary of a frustrated Getz, who wrote on September 3, 1981: "A sound of beating, a sound of Arabs in the tunnel. Apparently, they are sealing the inside of the wall with thick concrete. Every shout is like a dagger in my wounded heart. I yelled out: 'O God, the heathen are come into thine inheritance; thy holy Temple have they defiled.' But I must be stronger, and not be broken, for I must continue in my capacity, even if I am alone in the war."

The violent dispute that was barely avoided in 1981 erupted in full force 15 years later in the form of the Western Wall tunnel riots, which came to be considered a harbinger of the Second Intifada. Violent clashes that spread from Jerusalem to West Bank cities claimed the lives of 15 members of Israel's security forces and about 60 Palestinians. The riots broke out after then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu authorized the opening of the Western Wall tunnels, calling them the "bedrock of our existence." In actuality, the tumult erupted over the opening of a short passage that enabled the thousands of visitors to the Western Wall tunnels to exit into the Muslim Quarter instead of having to retrace their steps back to the start of the tunnel. Then, unlike as in 1981, the tunnel did not pass below the Temple Mount. But it was enough for the Waqf and the Palestinian leadership to incite thousands of people to take part in violent demonstrations. The tunnel was reopened shortly after the riots ended, and still serves the hundreds of thousands of visitors to the Western Wall tunnels.

As opposed to his predecessor Rabbi Getz, the current Western Wall rabbi, Shmuel Rabinovich, vehemently objects to easing the prohibition keeping Jews off the Temple Mount, either above or below ground. "As far as I am concerned, it is not a political issue; it is an issue of halakha [Jewish law]. Just like I cannot eat on Yom Kippur, I will not go up to the Temple Mount. So long as I am the rabbi of the Western Wall, no one will get even within touching distance of the Temple Mount," Rabinovich told Haaretz. Nevertheless, he is continuing the excavation of the Western Wall tunnels, and has turned them into one of Jerusalem's most famous and popular tourism attractions, with 750,000 visitors each year.

Briefing the parties

The main excavation project in the Western Wall area is in a tunnel underneath the Ohel Yitzhak synagogue, in the Muslim Quarter, 80 meters east of the Western Wall tunnels. The excavation was initially funded by Ateret Cohanim, a nonprofit association that works to move Jews into the Muslim Quarter with the financial backing of settlement movement patron Irwin Moskowitz.

Currently, states Rabinovich, Ateret Cohanim has nothing to do with the excavation, which has exposed an impressive Crusader structure, a Byzantine street and the remains of a large Second Temple-era structure. Rabinovich adds that he briefs all the relevant parties on the excavation progress, including American diplomats and Muslim Waqf officials.

"Human life is more important than uncovering the past. No excavation will be conducted if I think there is any risk to human life," he adds. The Ohel Yitzhak excavation has already linked up with the Western Wall tunnels, and when it is opened to the public, it will significantly expand visitors' below-ground options.

Uzi Dahari, deputy director of the Antiquities Authority, explains that in the case of Ohel Yitzhak, the excavation is not taking place in a tunnel; it is an ordinary excavation in a large underground chamber. The space was created by the construction methods employed in the Old City in the past few centuries: Many Muslim Quarter buildings are not built at ground level, but rather on top of outsized arches. Over the years, the spaces under the arches fill with debris and sewage; once the debris is removed, excavations can be conducted underneath.

These arches enabled excavation of the Western Wall tunnels and the Ohel Yitzhak synagogue. "We received a legal opinion stating that residents did not possess rights to these underground areas. Nevertheless, these are their homes and we must make sure nothing collapses. So we are working at all times with a safety engineer," Dahari explains.

Rabinovich says that aside from the archaeological and tourism-related benefits, not only do the excavations not undermine the buildings, they sometimes save them.

"The problem in the Old City is that there is no sewage infrastructure, meaning that when you excavate, you discover that the arches are warped, because the sewage is undermining the foundations," he says.

Disconnecting the Palestinians

As in the Muslim Quarter, Silwan is being excavated via tunnels; standard methods cannot be used because of the extant Palestinian homes. Since the mid-1990s, and to an even greater degree in the past decade, Antiquities Authority investigators have been working on a large-scale excavation in the City of David, funded by the Elad Foundation.

Elad was established by David Be'eri with the declared objective of "Judaizing" Silwan, and in 1996, the organization took over management of the City of David national park from the Israel Nature and Parks Authority.

Elad's fund-raising has enabled the excavations to expand immensely. A significant part of a typical visit to the City of David is now below ground. In some of the passageways, visitors march in the footsteps of ancient Jerusalem's waterworks employees; other tunnels were excavated by Charles Warren; yet more were cleared out only in the past 20 years.

Being below ground helps detach the site from Silwan and reinforces Jewish control, say Elad's opponents on the left. "The story about the tunnels is a means of justifying Israeli settlement in Silwan and the Muslim Quarter. The tunnels form a Jewish-Israeli underground city and transform those who control it - the settlers - into residents, and those who are disconnected from it - the Palestinians - into temporary outsiders," writes archaeologist Yoni Mizrachi in a report on below-ground Jerusalem. Mizrachi, one of the founders of the nonprofit group Emek Shaveh, compiled a critical report, whose details are being published here for the first time, about the underground spaces in the Old City and Silwan.

The Palestinian residents feel that they don't know what is going on under their homes. A few cases of craters appearing in the floor or cracks forming in walls were attributed to the excavations, sparking rage. In the past six months, Silwan has been on the verge of a "third intifada," complete with nearly daily violence between youths and security forces. The tunnels are surely not helping keep the quiet.

The excavation of the sewage canal that links the City of David with the Western Wall began in 2003. In many respects, this tunnel became Elad's flagship project. If, as Elad officials hope, the public can walk the length of the tunnel, it would give the national park a major boost, connecting it directly to the Western Wall plaza. The excavators say this is not an excavation in the ordinary sense, but rather a matter of "clearing" sewage from a Herodian tunnel that was largely exposed by Warren and his successors.

This explanation did not ease the misgivings of Silwan residents, who petitioned the High Court of Justice against the excavation, which delayed it by two years. But in September 2009, High Court justices authorized work to continue.

In her opinion, Justice Edna Arbel stated, "The importance of investigating the past does not negate the interests of the present. It cannot tread upon the right of residents of the excavation area to live in tranquility." Nonetheless, she ruled that the excavation was legal and archaeologically important, and was not causing damage to the buildings above it. This decision enabled the Antiquities Authority to announce by late January 2011 that the tunnel had been cleared all the way up to the Western Wall.

While excavating the tunnel, archaeologists found coins and pottery from the period of the Great Revolt, thus confirming the report from Josephus about the rebels' escape into the sewers as the city was being destroyed. Human bones were also found, although they had apparently been swept there over the years. In any event, there is no way to determine how old they were or whether they were connected to the late Second Temple era, due to the law forbidding examining human remains found in archaeological excavations.

distorting archaeology?

Since the excavation of the tunnel to the Western Wall plaza, the Antiquities Authority's home page (in Hebrew ) has featured a prominent link to a short promotional film about it.

"I am now walking up the first step, prior to ascending to the Temple," says archaeologist Eli Shukron in the film. Shukron and Dr. Ronny Reich were in charge of the excavation. "From here, people started to ascend to the Temple. A gradual ascent; you don't run to the Temple, you walk up slowly. I'm very excited; this is the first time that I am touching the destruction here."

"An archaeologist should not work based on emotions," says Prof. Yoram Tsafrir, one of Israel's most prominent archaeologists and a critic of the excavations. "He must uphold professional standards. He has to be like a surgeon, and behave professionally. They are saying they're 'only' clearing debris, but debris is important, too, and should be removed from top to bottom, not chipped away from the side, since it mirrors what happened there," says Tsafrir.

He also objects to the massive use of steel necessary to stabilize the tunnels. "It looks like defensive fortifications, like the Bar-Lev Line. In such a case, you're best not excavating. Someday there may be peace here, and the Palestinian residents will agree to a proper excavation. It is unacceptable that the political needs of Elad dictate the pace."

The scholarly objection to digging laterally through the tunnels is that this is a faulty, unscientific way of excavating, one that typified archaeology a century or more ago; it makes it impossible to find, date and document all the archaeological findings. Another objection concerns the fact that most of the excavations are cautiously retracing the steps of Warren and his successors, meaning they are providing only marginal added value. Critics also say the tunnels conceal the excavation from the public.

The tunnels distort archaeology in favor of the Jewish narrative, say critics, who argue that the excavators are skipping over the archaeological strata of other cultures, primarily Muslim and Christian, to get straight to the glory days of the Jewish reign in Jerusalem. This serves the political interests of the sponsors, of course.

"The Antiquities Authority and those whose bidding it is doing, the Elad Foundation settlers, the Western Wall Heritage Foundation and others, are conspiring to superficialize both Jewish history and the history of Jerusalem," states Mizrachi in the report. "All of Judaism is compressed into the brief periods of Jewish-Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem, while ignoring any layer of history that does not involve political sovereignty and ritual sacrifice. The history of Jerusalem is losing its infrastructure, including the period prior to the kingdom of Israel and everything that happened afterward, when Jerusalem became a Christian holy city and the Muslim al-Quds."

Archaeologist Dr. Ronny Reich is considered the father of the new tunnels. He and Shukron conducted most of the excavations. Reich was recently appointed chairman of the archaeological advisory council, the supreme professional body of the Antiquities Authority, after which he announced he was retiring from Jerusalem excavations after 40 years.

Reich himself wrote in an introductory archaeology textbook that the tunnel excavation method is outdated. Nevertheless, he rejects the criticism of his work in the City of David. One must differentiate between genuine archaeological excavations and clearing out debris from an ancient sewer, he says. This is not a vertical excavation, but rather the uncovering of an ancient structure. As for vertical excavations, such as the stepped street - the street that was built above the sewer system, now cleared and part of the City of David national park - Reich explains that given the choice between what he gave up by adopting this type of excavation style, and what he discovered by virtue of employing the method, he has no doubt that the excavation was highly valuable.

"Despite the allegations, we didn't excavate haphazardly," he says. "We decided to do without what we would have found by excavating garbage and mudslides in favor of discoveries whose added value to Jerusalem's history is immeasurably larger. We found that the entire slope is covered with 8 to 10 meters of garbage. The archaeologists who worked here in the past excavated with a bulldozer. We carried out a meticulous excavation; we sampled the dirt. No one has ever done such a scrupulous charting, even those who are criticizing us."

Reich admits that it is not ideal to have a private foundation with a pointed political ideology underwriting the excavation. It would be better if the state itself were to fund it, he says. Yet Elad has never interfered with the scientific work, says Reich.

"I'm not motivated by politics; I myself am on the left. I'm motivated by the archaeological understanding of Jerusalem. The excavation is sponsored by the State of Israel. What can I do if it is easy to raise funds for excavations in Jerusalem?"

Reich is also proud of his part in encouraging tourism in the area. "When we started, 15 years ago, there may have been a thousand tourists a year . Now there are 450,000 and that is solely because of the archaeology. There is nothing else. So what am I being accused of, heping develop tourism in Jerusalem?"

Reich also rejects the criticism regarding secret excavations. "What can I say? The excavation isn't always visible. There are safety issues. Elsewhere in the world you sometimes have to wait 20 years to see the sites," he explains.

Dahari also defends the Elad-financed vertical excavations. "If you want me to say that I love the fact that Elad is financing the project, I can't. But Elad is like every other developer; it is the landlord, but the excavation is conducted scientifically. We have to be judged on the basis of whether we are doing good scientific work. We don't engage in politics. Of course, I would be happy if people weren't living in the City of David, as in Tel Hatzor or Tel Megiddo, and it were possible to excavate the ordinary way. Excavating in tunnels is not the best way, but there is no arguing that this is a significant site for the history of Jerusalem, and we have no alternative," he says.

It was the Antiquities Authority, Reich says, that stopped his work on the ancient street, after he came across a Byzantine structure and concerns arose that the excavation might destroy it.

Therefore, the excavators dropped down below the street level into the sewer, which enabled them to break through toward the Western Wall, says Dahari.

"I don't see the excavations as a political act," he says, "but because this is Jerusalem, it is hard to differentiate between scientific significance and politics. Just consider how people would respond to the discovery of such a sewer system in any other historic city."

Discoveries of import 'for all human civilization'

Haaretz received the following statement from Elad in response to questions about its excavations in Jerusalem. "The excavations in the City of David have been conducted for over 150 years by dozens of delegations from Israel and the world over. The excavations funded by Elad are being carried out by leading archaeologists on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority. They are the ones who decide on the work methods at the site, and at each and every spot the digging is done according to their scientific and professional instructions.

"Everyone is aware that those who are opposing the excavations in Jerusalem today are doing so for clear political reasons. The courts, headed by the High Court of Justice, repeatedly reject various and sundry attempts to stop the development in the City of David. Apparently the courts have also realized that the serial complainers are motivated by non-practical considerations.

"Over the years many of the residents of Silwan worked at the digs, and were an inseparable part of the tremendous project in the national park in which they live. During the past two years elements from the extreme left - from Israel and all over the world - have linked up with ultranationalist and extreme-Islamic players. Arab workers began to receive threats, and Arab and Jewish residents began to suffer from harassment and violence. Unfortunately most of the Arab workers left in fear for their lives, and because one of them was beaten and his car set on fire. As a result some of the residents now feel unconnected to what is being done on the site. Evildoers are exploiting that in order to feed them biased and misleading information.

"Recently a drainage canal from the Second Temple period was exposed. This is one of the most important and exciting archaeological discoveries of recent years, not only for the Jewish people but for all of human civilization. It is clear to every thinking person that the route of the canal was determined 2,000 years ago, and there is no connection between its discovery and attempts to connect it, indecently, to political viewpoints."



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